Sunday, June 20, 2010

NYC Design Sale Wrap-Up

I am not one to be smug, perish the thought, but I was pleasantly surprised to see my predictions realized. Unfortunately, both the Rateau screen and the Normandie panels crashed and burned when they hit the auction block last week. The Normandie panels were clearly too expensive and unrelated to make a cohesive offering, but the Rateau Screen was another story altogether... I previewed the sales and the screen left me dumbfounded. It was massive, definitely one of those cases where you need to focus in on the published dimensions as it was nearly 15 feet tall. The quality was unmatched for sure and it had sufficient age and patina making its authenticity above reproach. Too bad the deeper history was not known. If it could have been tied to a boldface name like Jeanne Lanvin it very likely would have sold. There is no doubt in my mind that it will sell discreetly via an after sale offer and it will likely turn up again restored to its former glory. The most expensive lot of the week was sold at Christie's. The lot in question was the exceptional Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann "Lasalle" commode that knocked-down for an astonishing $614,000 (with premium) against an estimate of $150,000-200,000. To blow through an estimate to this degree it definitely went to a private individual who was competing against other deep-pocketed collectors.
It is impressive for sure, but it was a bit more sun faded in person with a slightly greenish cast that is just faintly evident in the catalogue illustration. That however did not seem to matter, as I have said before, if the YSL and Dray sales taught us anything it is that rare top-tier art deco works are almost infallible at auction these days. The travesty of the week was the Lalanne zoomorphic bar that tanked at Christie's. Like the Rateau screen the catalogue did not convey the sheer monumentality of the work. With the explosive Lalanne results achieved this past December I thought for sure this devilishly clever bar would find a home, alas no...

Perhaps at $500,000-700,000 the price was just too steep. I for one thought it would fly at that price, pun intended...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Normandie Hodgepodge

I am getting geared-up for the design sales in New York this week and had to make a quick note about a rather puzzling lot at Christie's. Available for your bidding are 13 reverse glass decorated panels from the Grand Salon of the art deco luxury liner the S.S. Normandie. It would sound pretty alluring to modernist aficionados....until you see what they are actually offering.

Fairly puzzling, no? For $300,000-500,000 I would personally want something more recognizable than some scattered clumps of unrelated foliage, banners, waves, a buoy and a partial edifice....but I digress. For those not in the know, the Normandie was a floating palace of an ocean liner ensconced from stem-to-stern with top-notch art deco decor. The centerpiece of the ship was the "grand salon" which could seat 700 people comfortably. The room was furnished with Jean Rothschild and Jean Dunand furniture, Lalique fixtures and its walls were clad with glass panels designed by Jean Dupas depicting continuous scenes of the history of navigation. The Normandie was launched in 1935 and was unfortunately converted into a troop transport ship in 1942. However, during its conversion for wartime use an acetylene torch set life vests ablaze consuming the ship and it languished capsized in the Hudson river for 18 months. Fortunately, most of the furnishings and decor had been removed prior to the conflagration only to be scattered for eternity by subsequent public auctions.

These period images of the Grand Salon are a bit hard to decipher but thankfully the Met recently installed their 58 continuous panels that were donated in 1976.

As you see the panels puzzled together form vast sweeping scenes where mythical figures and creatures commingle with various eras of maritime vessels. These panels were fairly common at auction in the 1980s when art deco was enjoying a wide renaissance amongst collectors, but by the mid-1990s they tended to trade hands privately or through dealers. Obviously what you truly want as a collector is an interesting continuous scene, or if you settle on one or two panels they should command visual impact. There have been some recent successes following this tactic...

This depiction of sails comprising 10 panels from the "Birth of Aphrodite" section of the mural ranks high in desirability and thus commanded $512,500 (with premium) against and estimate of $200,000 to 300,000 at Sotheby's this past December.

This single panel pops with the geometry of lines and rays all focused on the sun at the horizon. Sotheby's managed to sell this gem for $46,875 (with premium) against a sensible estimate of $30,000-50,000 in June of 2009.

These two vertical panels dramatically depict the stern of a ship from the "Chariot of Thetis" section and were successfully sold by Maison Gerard at the Winter Antiques Show this past January. While the sale was private they were widely thought to have traded in the low six figures.

So we are left to muse as to why Christie's would be motivated to sell such a large random assortment of panels in an unforgiving market that only rewards the "best of the best." With a little research I think I found the answer. It appears that 12 of the 13 panels were actually sold by Christie's on 23 June 2005 as consecutive lots 292-294 (totalling $282,000 with premium). It is likely that the current consignor purchased all three lots in 2005 and has decided to re-sell them in light of the recent successes at Sotheby's. Still, it would have been more realistic to break them up into smaller groupings as the current offering is rather hard to digest especially for a collector who may only need a few of the panels to complete a set in their existing collection. It is a gamble on Christie's part for sure and I hope they prove me wrong, but in my opinion the odd mass grouping is going to be a tough sell.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And then there were none...

This spring season I was pleasantly surprised to find that society doyenne Jayne Wrightsman had closed her London home and decided to sell its contents via Sotheby's New York. She had done this once before in 1984, a celebrated sale after she shuttered her fabled Palm Beach compound. If you are not familiar with Jayne Wrightsman, think of the Wrightsman Galleries of Decorative Art at the Metropolitan Museum. She is truly a woman after my own heart, rising from humble beginnings to reign over the New York art scene from her exclusive perch at 820 Fifth Avenue. Vanity Fair did an extensive bio of her in 2003 which I refuse to butcher here. Moving forward... the most recent Sotheby's sale offered an enticing array of 18th century French high-style, a look which was heavily promoted to socialites since the 1940's by firms such as Maison Jansen whom Jayne employed extensively. When I came to lot 121 I had a moment of deep recognition in the form of a pair of fanciful niches en tabourets (dog bed footstools).

Whimsical? Agreed. Almost comical? Perhaps, but rarities such as these make for an exciting moment and good copy, but I knew I had seen them before. After tearing through my library I found my copy of the Metropolitan Museum's 1966 "Wrightsman Collection Volume I: Furniture." There on page 98 I found what I was seeking...

I had to blink, but despite the fabric change the pairs seem to be one in the same. The proof is in the details. The measurements are identical, as is the construction, and one kennel is stamped E. Nauroy in each instance. But if you compare the wear patterns to the gilding in both images it is clear that the kennels for sale were once part of the Wrightsman Galleries at the Met. Hmmm... so why were they deaccessioned? Who can say for certain. Perhaps Jayne wanted them back at some point or perhaps they were deemed "not quite right." This is purely conjecture, but Sotheby's steered clear of any controversy noting succinctly that they were acquired from Rosenberg & Stiebel, New York, 1962 and that the were reupholstered in 18th century French silk in 1987 by the firm of Mayorcas Ltd., London. Their stint at the Met was omitted completely so we are left to only to guess. They were however guaranteed as being circa 1765 and sold for $86,500 (with premium) against an estimate of $25,000-35,000. It seems that quite a few bidders were convinced of their veracity. But then again they have a delightful appeal and a Wrightsman provenance is nothing to sniff at....

This exercise led me to muse over the fate of the the another rare dog kennel that is still included in the Wrightsman galleries, well at least for now. It is a delightful little domed, gilt-wood and blue velvet upholstered doghouse tucked in front of a window in the Paar room.

The image above is from the 1966 Wrightsman catalogue where this elaborate dog bed that was still fleetingly believed to have been delivered to Marie Antoinette at Versailles in 1787. The piece in fact bears the personal stamp of the queen's Garde Mueble or furniture equerry. The kennel has held pride of place in the Paar room since its donation in the 1960s but it has not been the focus of any recent scholarship. For years I have heard rumors and curatorial opinions that the piece was not quite right or plainly just too good to be true. Well I waited with anticipation to see if the kennel would be included in the updated catalogue of the Wrightsman Galleries which was released late last month. It seems that the little blue "royal" kennel failed to be included. The rest of the important pieces are included especially those with a proven royal provenance. While the Met has not taken a public stance it seems that, by omission, the kennel no longer makes the cut. We'll see how long it manages to stay on view.